Wednesday, December 25, 2013

A Christmas letter to my sons

Dear Jack, Max, Charlie and Isaac,

On this Christmas Day, there is one more of you to love than at the same time last year. In some ways it’s incredible to think how different life is now from just 12 short months ago, when a fourth baby wasn’t on the horizon. And in other ways, it seems like we’ve somehow arrived together at a destination we’ve all been traveling toward together over the last decade, even before any of you were here.

Ten years ago tonight, when Mom and I knew our first baby was about four months away, we had no way to know where the next decade would lead. But standing here now, looking back and also facing our future, I am simply overcome with a feeling of being blessed. Each one of you is a precious, indescribable gift. That I’m able to be your father, and that Mom and I are able to be partners in this wild journey, are at once all I ever wanted and yet far beyond my wildest dreams.

Life may be a lot different if and when you all grow up and have your own families. But let me tell you how it worked for me in 2013: On Christmas Eve we went to church with Pops and K. All throughout the sanctuary were some of our dearest friends and other important members of our faith family. And on Christmas morning, in quiet moments trying to get Isaac to nap, I spent some time on Facebook seeing how friends from different parts of the past and present were marking the holiday.

The pictures of expectant mothers and older siblings getting ready to welcome a new baby next year. My peers struggling through the first holiday season without a beloved father. Newly single parents trying to establish new Christmas traditions and numb the pain of divorce. Brave souls facing the inevitably of aging and disease. Couples married earlier this year posing in front of their first tree as husband and wife. Other parents brave enough to raise four kids. People who desperately want to be parents but encounter challenge after challenge. Families together on Christmas for the first time in years. Families trying to celebrate together despite being separated by many time zones.

Love is all around, especially on a day designed to celebrate the love God has for all people, but there are some situations where it’s harder for that love to break down the walls we build. And honestly, there are times throughout days like today where I just feel guilty for the simple pleasure of hugging one of you and letting you know you’re loved. I wish I could convey to you know how special these moments really are, to convince you to enjoy them fully because we’re not promised tomorrow, but that’s the kind of lesson I haven’t learned to teach.

So here’s the deal: I’m going to do my best to make sure you know you are loved. I will try to live my life in gratitude for everything God has done for me, and along the way I’ll attempt to give you an example of someone who pursues love and peace. It’s beyond cliché by now, but you all make me want to be a better person — and I want to inspire you to unlock every ounce of potential you have to make this world a better place.

Being a dad is amazing. Being your dad is beyond wonderful. To God be the glory.

A prayer for December 25:

Lord, thank you for my family. Thank you for the promise Jesus brings and the freedom to live fully in peace your love provides. May we all be able to hear your call, to seek your will and to live lives worthy of you. Amen.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Isaac's Big Day

2 Thessalonians 2:13-14 (NIV)

But we ought always to thank God for you, brothers and sisters loved by the Lord, because God chose you as firstfruits to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth. He called you to this through our gospel, that you might share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The gathered family. A wonderful day.
Perhaps someone who writes a blog about parenting with a Christian perspective (or someone who used to before a fourth baby arrived and did serious damage to his dad’s productivity) should have something deep and meaningful to say about his infant son’s first sacrament. But this was a day where I paused in trying to figure out what everything meant and simply allowed myself to experience the joy of the moment.

There was a point during Isaac’s baptism where I stopped staring into his eyes, stopped checking to see if the other three boys were standing politely and stopped checking to see if my tie was straight and actually stood straight up and looked out at the congregation. For a moment it felt like our wedding ceremony, during which we surveyed a room full of people there to give us love and support.

It was a different building today, but many of the faces were the same. Several others belonged to people to whom we’ve gown close since moving her almost five years ago. And unlike at a wedding, there were plenty of folks there who would have been at church regardless of our special day, but the liturgy reminds them and us that accepting a child into the congregation is about our responsibilities as a community of faith not limited to personal relationships.

The moment didn’t last long. After all, I had three children to supervise, plus a little bit of fretting about the fourth howling as he got washed in the water. Yet the feeling persisted throughout the day and hopefully will sustain me through many long years of raising these boys. After all, this is our final baptism as parents. Our next major church milestones are both several years away and also not about us as mom and dad, but about the kids as individuals.

Three boys have yet to be old enough for their third-grade Bible. All of them hopefully will go through confirmation class as they begin high school. Then things like baccalaureate Sunday, and perhaps one day their own weddings. They will stand up and face outward, reading the eyes of those gathered under the same roof in God’s name — but we’ll be among the seated and observant. Their blood family, yes, but part of the larger family of faith as well.

Jack helps make sure all things are ready.
One of the great gifts given to us today was the pastor’s initiative and creativity in involving the big brothers in the ritual. Jack was invited to pour the water into the baptismal font during the opening sentences. Max was tasked with retrieving presenting Isaac’s first Bible. And all three were asked, in front of everyone, if they would promise to encourage us to share the Bible with Isaac, to help him find his Sunday school classroom and to teach by example the high art of sharing. When Max proudly answered, “I will!” well, I couldn’t help but radiate joy.

I know faith isn’t for everyone. There are people who can handle belief but abhor organized religion. Some point out it’s entirely possible be a good person without going to church or acknowledging and worshipping a higher power — and just as possible to behave horribly despite claiming to walk in faith. The diversity of thought and experience helps makes modern life rich and challenging, and I truly value the chance to communicate with people who come at the world through a perspective different from my own.

But on days like today, when I feel in my bones the love of God expressed in unmistakable, uncontained abundance, I know I’m walking the path intended for me. And after all the excitement and family time, as I (soon, I hope!) lay me down to sleep, I commit to waking tomorrow to live in gratitude for the many blessings I experience today and every day.

A prayer for December 15:

I know I’m supposed to write my own prayers to end these things. But I feel it more appropriate to share this instead. Following the worship service today was the Christmas pageant, our first with a child involved. Since the focus was on classic carols, and not just the music but extra knowledge as well, we were able to hear the name of Isaac Watts invoked during the spoken introduction to “Joy to the World.” This is special to me, as noted right after our own Isaac arrived.

Furthermore, earlier in the morning the sermon incorporated the well-known prayer that almost led to us using a middle name before we chose a first name. I’d love to delve into the full context of the sermon, or even the history of the prayer itself, but it seems more appropriate at the moment to simply share the words and add to them my thanks the prayer exists at all as well as my hope I can live up to its high calling:

The Prayer of St. Francis

Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace;
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is error, truth;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master, Grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console;
To be understood as to understand;
To be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Up on the rooftop? Just shingles

We are not a Santa Claus family.

We have stockings hung by the chimney with some degree of care (though this year we have one too many for our previous decorative holders), but we don’t write letters or put out milk and cookies. We don’t do pictures at the mall. We don’t make it a point to watch the seasonal TV specials. Over the years we’ve collected a metric ton of Christmas-themed books, but I try to steer the kids away from the overtly Santa-based material.

It’s not that we’re overly emphasizing the religious aspects of the season either. We don’t do Advent calendars or have a home Advent wreath. We don’t have Christmas music playing on a loop. Plenty of those aforementioned books are about secular gift giving or animals getting together to decorate a Christmas tree. Heck, probably a full dozen are just about snowmen.

Make no mistake, Christmas is indeed a religious holiday in our family. We have a Nativity scene and always go to church on Christmas Eve. Lots of the books are indeed explicitly about the reason for the season. Last Sunday in the car, after discussing the months of the year, I asked the boys whose birthday was coming up next. Max’s hand shot up from the back seat and he yelled, “I know! Jesus!” So at least one of them is paying attention in Sunday school.

(He pays attention at church choir, too, as I learned a few weeks ago when I thought I heard him muttering “Jesus Christ!” under his breath. Turns out he was practicing “Go, Tell It On the Mountain.” Not my finest parenting moment.)

We do have a few of the hats, though.
I’m not really sure I can pinpoint a time when we decided to skip the Santa craze. Maybe it was when Jack was eight months old with two parents working full-time jobs and a 40-minute drive to the nearest mall. Maybe it was a few years later when we had to take down the decorations after a curious toddler nearly melted a hole in the living room carpet. Maybe it was when he was old enough to buy into the routine, but also very clearly sharp enough to get quite cross if he grasped the reality.

Whatever the actual reason, we don’t do Santa. Items stuffed in the stockings are a surprise, but we don’t make a production about their origin. It’s much like the Easter baskets. We do them, and hunting for eggs remains a thrill even for the fourth-grader, but there’s no undercurrent of mystery. It’s more or less just a fact of the holiday. The boys know a cow has to die in order for us to eat hamburgers, which is a thing you can teach without showing videos from the processing plant.

And that’s the wrinkle: We’re not a Santa family, but we don’t care if anyone else loves the traditions. I don’t begrudge any fellow parents their Elf on the Shelf hijinks. I certainly don’t arm my kids with “the truth” and urge them to confront their peers and burst bubbles. But according to some things I’ve seen (or heard secondhand) on social media, apparently this is a major concern for parents. Surely it’s been that way forever: School, after all, is where kids learn all the things their parents won’t teach them at home. If parents think Santa and the Easter Bunny are rough lessons, just wait to see what the precious ones pick up during junior high.

I get it. Santa is great fun. Parents love being able to let their children share in the magic. They all know it will end some day, but they’re always hoping to get through one more season of wonderment. It has to be crushing to set hopes high for late December only to have them dashed right after Thanksgiving.

That’s partly why we never started. If you don’t show them the lady being sawed in half, you don’t have to see the look on their faces when they realize the skill is in the illusion. Maybe that’s a bit like saying you don’t want a pet because it will crush the young ones when the pet’s time is through… but the love for and from the animal is real every step of the way.

I’m trying very carefully not to pass judgment here. Abstaining from Santa stuff doesn’t make us any better or worse, just different. Like with many things, we just want the kids to understand our traditions and respect the rights of other people to enjoy theirs. It seems silly to see people getting so worked up about who does what at holiday time, but it seems like as good a time as any to teach tolerance and deference, as well as a reminder to us, as a mom and a dad, to answer kids with honesty, making sure it’s age appropriate truth.

So no, we’re not a Santa Claus family. Maybe our boys will choose to go all in on the Jolly Old Elf if they become parents some day. And if so, we’ll play along. If not, that’s fine, too. There’s plenty of other things in life for more deserving of attention and concern, and only so much time and energy to expend. They key for us is knowing where to look for guidance on which path to follow.

A prayer for December 5:

Lord, thank you not just for the wonders of Christmas itself, but the gift of Advent and urging me to prepare my heart and mind. My walk through this world is so much different when I can get my soul in a proper place, and I know so easily when I am out of sorts. But I always need your help to pull me back, set my feet straight and walk by my side going forward. I am blessed to never be alone, and I hope with your help to be able to teach my children to feel the same way. Amen.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Displaced, again

Feeling trapped by life is fairly common, or at least it has been for me. At various points I encountered circumstances beyond my control, such as the impending end of high school and college, or an unfortunate collection of obligations coinciding such that I simply didn’t know where to begin. Not that I find myself in this mental place with great regularity, nor have I ever been in so deep it’s impossible to dig out, but suffice it to say I am familiar with the sentiment.

Rarely, though, has the physical condition matched the emotional state as well as it has the past few days. The last major component of repairing our house following the early September sewer disaster began in earnest at 7 a.m. Monday when our contractor knocked on my front door about 10 minutes before my phone was supposed to wake me from what passes for sleep these days. Shortly after Jack left for the bus stop guys were hauling furniture from the dining room to the living room and wielding circular saws, crowbars and hammers in an effort to remove every last bit of original pine from the first floor of the house.

No, why would this bother me?
That was followed, at some point, by the process of installing the new floor. Thankfully know it’s substantially completed, though much of our furniture remains jammed into the living room. As much as I love the wood Kristie chose and praise the craftsmanship of the installer, it’s hard to overlook the impact of having an air compressor and nail gun operating precisely where I’m supposed to stand to wash the dishes or sit to eat dinner.

My parents let us come down for dinner Monday night and offered to do so again Tuesday, though our weekly visit to the allergy doctor took precedence. So there we sat at 8 p.m. Tuesday with six people crammed into our bedroom, along with a baby swing that’s supposed to be on the main floor, shoving down fast food takeout before moving on to homework and baths. The floor guy was gone for the night, and he’d tidied up after himself. But there was sawdust everywhere and stacks of dirty dishes in the bedroom, not to mention the frazzled nerves from all of us being within an arm’s reach of each other far too frequently.

It was not unlike being wedged into the minivan for days on end, only without the promise of spilling out into a hotel with a pool at the end of each night. Also the scenery was worse, though I won’t complain about ready access to a bathroom.

We knew these days would come as soon as we determined the whole floor had to be replaced. Once we got used to walking on a chunk of subfloor between the kitchen and living room, it made sense to hold off on this week until Isaac was a bit more settled into home life. Turns out he’s settled plenty, seeing as he was able to sleep perfectly fine despite all the commotion. The rest of us weren’t as amazingly adaptable.

That this all happened right after Thanksgiving and the first Sunday of Advent is perhaps more than happenstance. Between the flood and the newborn (and his hospital stay) I’ve been having a heck of a time sitting down to write with any sort of regularity, and I’m more or less shooing Jack out the door every morning instead of taking my own slow walk to the bus stop with a prayer on my heart. I was hoping the preparations for Christmas would also signal a bit of refocusing for my own sense of spirit, but all our decorations are still stuck in the garage where they don’t belong because now there’s no room to put them anywhere inside the house. There’s simply no time to get ready for anything when each day becomes a matter of, to steal a cliché from the sports world, survive and advance.

In keeping with the clichés, this, too, shall pass. The stuff will get moved back, the cars will fit in the garage, the Christmas tree will find its new home and we won’t have to eat dinner on the bedroom floor. It will have been just a few days of hassle, and you start to feel less put upon by your own challenges when you hear about people who literally lost their homes or their lives, as I alluded to last time I sat down to write.

Maybe that’s my overriding lesson from the past few months: sometimes life is brutal, but other people have it worse so chin up, count your blessings and carry on in gratitude. It’s not healthy to bottle up frustrations, especially when the feelings are valid. But it’s also important to retain perspective and develop functional coping strategies. This week has been a challenge, but how sad can a person be who gets to kiss his wife and four beautiful sons goodnight seven days a week?

We’ll get by — we always do. But no more dinners in the bedroom, please.

A prayer for December 4:

Lord, help me. I need to open my ears to hear when you are speaking. I need to open my eyes to see where you are at work in the world. And I need to fully open my heart to you, that I might do a better job of living a life worthy of you. At this time of year especially, help me prepare myself, body, mind and soul, for you to come and fully take over. I need to breathe new air, and I need you to help me move forward. Amen.